What Happened - a review

What Happened

Hillary Rodham Clinton, Simon & Schuster, 2017, ISBN 978-1-9255-9669-4, 492pp

This morning I read an article in the Guardian by Catherine Bennett that is headlined “After Vegas, why do we still treat the US as a civilised state?” The question is too limited. We do not need to preface the question with “after Vegas”. After reading this book, and having read and reviewed “Shattered” by Jonathan Allen and Amie Barnes, I am left with a vague feeling that the United States, which claims to be the bastion of democracy and freedom, is anything but that. I cannot say whether it is all getting worse but with every utterance of Trump I cannot help but thinking that the US is on a slippery slope to the isolation of the 1930s and, with it, irrelevance. That is, of course, unless we all get blown up first.

Clinton’s book is called “What happened”. Note that this is not a question; this is a statement and the book is an attempt by the candidate to say either why she lost or why Trump won. I don’t think she does either convincingly. There’s no doubt that Clinton is an intelligent woman who has dedicated her life to public service. She has been a First Lady and a US Senator. She has, politically, been around. Yet she doesn’t convince me in this book (and I concede that I may not be qualified to judge) that she or her campaign got to grips with what they were dealing with. She rationalises the reasons for her defeat to the combined effects of the “audacious information warfare waged from the Kremlin, the unprecedented intervention in [the] election by the director of the FBI, a political press that told voters that [her] emails were the most important story, and deep currents of anger and resentment flowing through [US] culture.” Perhaps she is right about this. But she was fighting an unconventional candidate.

Donald Trump is narcissistic, illogical, inconsistent and frequently offensive. Dealing with those characteristics requires something different to the methods that have been used before. To an extent, in the final pages of the book, Clinton refers to the creation of “Onward Together” which is designed to encourage its acolytes to “resist, insist, persist, enlist.” But Onward Together was the result of the campaign and not its enabler.

Clinton’s deep and extensive experience may well have been her downfall. She refers to Trump’s comment that “nobody knew that healthcare could be so difficult.” He may not have known this but nearly everyone else in the world knew it. Trump didn’t know, or perhaps didn’t care, that it would be hard to implement policy change. Clinton’s does know that it’s difficult. In the book she goes to some lengths to demonstrate that the formulation of policy requires the support of a consensus. She describes how she went to great lengths during the campaign to bring people together. But all the time her opponent was doing the opposite; he did not care about consensus; he simply devised a rhetoric that appealed to a certain set of voters. And, in spite of the fact that he lost the popular vote, he won the Presidency. Clinton laments this fact several times in the book. But it is the way the system works; there have been times in the UK when its “first past the post” system has resulted in a government being elected with less votes than its rivals. It depends how you define the democratic system.

Clinton makes a great deal in the book about the fact that she is a wife, a mother and a grandmother. She is a woman. The dust jacket of the book notes that she was “the first woman in US history to become the presidential nominee of a major political party.” She has an answer for those who say that this is simply another demonstration that the US lags much of the rest of the world in basic human rights. Prime Ministers, she says, are chosen by their colleagues in a “system designed to reward women’s skill at building relationships, which requires emotional labour.” On the other hand, presidential systems reward different talents; speaking to large crowds, looking commanding on camera, dominating in debates.” I am not completely convinced of this and I do not think Clinton needs to defend her achievements. She is a remarkable woman to have done what she has done but I wonder whether her achievement is greater than Angela Merkel, Theresa May or Julia Gillard. Perhaps, as a man, I cannot judge. But there is no doubt that, in the same way that Obama’s election was a great thing for civil rights, Clinton’s election would have been a wonderful thing for gender equality.

As it is we can only ask “what if?” Would we have had more of the same, had she been elected, as her detractors suggested? Would the world be a safer place? We do not know. What I do know from reading this book is that US politics is very different to the politics that I am used to. For a start Bernie Sanders is described as “left wing”. In European and Australian terms, he is probably centre left. Clinton would be on the right wing of Australian politics, and probably UK politics. It is valid for Clinton to conclude that the US electorate was duped into getting it wrong but it may not be valid for someone outside the US system to say that. This book is an attempt to say what happened from Clinton’s point of view. It is a story of her views and disappointments. It doesn’t ask the question what happened? That will come later, probably after Trump has gone and historians ask how could this have happened. As I remarked when I reviewed “Shattered” this book is an easy read for anyone who is interested in the political process. What I got wrong when I reviewed “Shattered” was a sense that the political backdrop is not a lot different in the US than it is here. It certainly is different and there are parts of this book that leave you gasping for breath. I leave it to you to answer Catherine Bennett’s question: why do we still treat the US as a civilised state? But your answer would be informed by reading this book.

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